Commentary

Gay Marriage & TR

This article appeared in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review on June 1, 2006.

Teddy Roosevelt is everywhere. President Bush has been reading TR biographies. Conservative pundits hail Roosevelt for his two-fisted “national greatness” conservatism in stark contrast to the limited-government ideas of Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan. And now Republicans want a constitutional amendment regulating marriage, another bad idea that goes back to Teddy Roosevelt.

TR was perhaps the most articulate promoter of the view that the federal government should have more and more power over our lives. Acting on that philosophy, he pushed to expand the power of the federal government in every direction.

In his 1906 annual message, it was the power to interfere with people’s personal lives and with the traditional domain of state governments by regulating the terms of marriage.

Polygamous families were producing more children than monogamous families and TR feared that polygamy would sweep the nation. He recommended a constitutional amendment banning polygamy. He came close to suggesting that there ought to be a law making it mandatory for monogamous families to have children.

One big problem with the idea of federalizing everything is the assumption that the “right” people will always be in control.

Considering Theodore Roosevelt’s early experience with corrupt New York state politics, he was curiously oblivious to the fact that there’s no reliable way to keep bad people out of power. This is a major reason why the Founders believed that political power should be limited by the sorts of constitutional checks and balances that TR disparaged.

If political decisions about private life cannot be avoided, it’s best that they be made at a local or state level rather than national level. While some jurisdictions will embrace bad policies, there are probably others embracing good policies. In a big country with many jurisdictions, almost everybody should be able to find some safe places.

Traditionally, American conservatives believed that government power should be limited. Now, however, certain leaders of the “religious right” want the federal government to expand its power over our personal lives. They want to throttle lively debates about marriage going on in states and local communities across America.

Like Teddy Roosevelt, they assume that the new federal power they create will always be used as they think best. But power created by one generation is frequently used in very different ways by later generations in ways that were never intended.

Mindful of historical reality, one has to consider the possibility that if the marriage amendment is ratified, it will strengthen precedents for the federal government to find new ways of interfering in people’s personal lives. At least some of the interference will likely be abhorrent to the religious right.

If they really want to promote traditional marriage, conservative people of faith should do two things:

First, they could marry someone of the opposite sex and set an example of how beautiful such unions can be.

Second, rather than working to close off the rights of gays, they should use their political efforts to abolish the obnoxious marriage tax penalty. Then all people of every sect and philosophy would owe them a debt of gratitude.

Jim Powell, senior fellow at the Cato Institute, is author of FDR’s Folly, How Roosevelt and His New Deal Prolonged the Great Depression(Crown Forum, 2003).